Aeschylus: The Persians, The Suppliant Maidens, Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound

I managed to finish reading the four remaining plays by Aeschylus in Volume 4 of GBWW this weekend. As I was reading in marathon, I came to notice structural similarities between the plays. A striking one was that all of them featured at least one extended dialogue between one of the main protagonists and the leader of the chorus featuring stichomythia (a sequence of tit-for-tat one liners spoken by each interlocutor). Sometimes the intensity is further heightened by the use of anadiplosis, where a word used by the character A is wittily used in character B’s reply. For example, take this snippet of the dialogue between Danaus and the chorus of maidens in The Suppliant Maidens, where they pray to Zeus before meeting with the King of Argos, from whom they will ask for protection:

Lo, on this shrine, the semblance of a bird.

Zeus’ bird of dawn it is; invoke the sign.

Thus I invoke the saving rays of morn.

Next, bright Apollo, exiled once from heaven. [Apollo is the god of the sun]

The exiled god will pity our exile.

Yea, may he pity, giving race and aid.

The Suppliant Maidens, Loc. 181

The protagonist-chorus leader dialogues may play different roles in the plot, but they are always done after the chorus has sung its first long piece  on the stage alone (usually narrating the background story of the plot) and the protagonist enters the stage. In Seven Against Thebes, a leader-chorus dialogue occurs in an attempt by the chorus to dissuade Eteocles from meeting his brother Polynices in battle, resulting in a powerful device for dramatic foreshadowing (the intensity and length of the dialogue confirms to the audience that Eteocles is doomed to die). In The Persians, the dialogue occurs after Atossa has related her strange dream about the outcome of the Persian invasion. The chorus leader informs her of the greatness of the Greeks, further increasing her worries. Overall, the chorus leader-protagonist dialogue seems to be a characteristic of either Aeschylus’ dramas or Greek drama in general. Due to the structure where it almost always follows the chorus’ opening narrative, the dialogue is a form of interaction between the protagonist and their stage environment, establishing the former’s place in the landscape of the play and usually foreshadowing what is to come. Perhaps this makes up the lack of interactions with physical props (which probably didn’t exist at the time).

Another common feature complementing the leader-protagonist dialogue is the use of more extensive call-and-response between the full chorus and the protagonist(s). Sometimes this features the use of a choral refrain. We have already seen this in the interaction between the chorus and Cassandra’s mad utterances in Agamemnon, and in the extended lyrical scene in The Libation Bearers where the chorus, Elektra, and Orestes sing a chant to conjure up the spirit of their dead father. In Seven Again Thebes an intense full chorus-protagonist dialogue occurs right before the aforementioned dialogue where they try to persuade Eteocles to not fight his brother. It also happens in The Suppliant Maidens, where the maidens desperately try to argue with the King of Argos about why he should protect them.

Based on the use of these two devices and others, I think that the dramatic use of the chorus in Greek theater is one of its most powerful and enduring characteristics – one that completely explains to me why the idea of the “Greek chorus” became a recognizable concept throughout the rest of Western literary history. For example, the heroic, triumphant passage in Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March in Wagner’s opera Götterdämmerung has been compared (here by Christopher Cheong, of my former orchestra the Orchestra of the Music Makers) to the narration of a hero’s exploits in his life by a Greek chorus. The Greek chorus is not just a feature of the theater; they are central to the world of the whole play. Even the playwright’s choice of whom they represent (e.g. the maidens in The Suppliant Maidens and the angry Erinyes in The Eumenides) has great influence on the world of the play.

General Comments on Each Play

  • The Persians: Nothing much happens in this play, which would be unthinkable for a play written during the time of Shakespeare onward. The whole thing is basically a self-celebratory, almost propagandistic piece of patriotic literature made to rub salt into the wounds of the Persian invaders who were defeated at the naval battle at Salamis in 480 BC. (This is the decisive turning point of the same invasion which was famously delayed by the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.) The basic plot consists of Atossa, the mother of Persian king and commander Xerxes, narrating a strange dream which seems to show worrying signs about how the invasion force is doing. Messengers come and confirm her fears, detailing the gory defeat of the Persians in detail. Distraught, Atossa conjures up the spirit of her late husband Darius to try to make sense of what happens, who rebukes the Persians for their bad decisions (such as building bridges to traverse the Hellespont strait). Xerxes arrives and the play closes with his lament for his loss and defeat.
    The focus of the play seems to be glorifying both the natural bravery of the Greeks and their heroic actions during the war. The lines given to Xerxes and the chorus loudly lament the tragedies that have befallen the Persian army. Xerxes in particular keeps emphasizing how sad he is; in an instance of stichomythia with the chorus, he repeatedly points to his torn royal robes as evidence that his glory has truly been ruined. Aeschylus even manages to slip in a reference to the bravery of the Greeks:

I thought these Grecians shrunk appall’d at arms.

No: they are bold and daring: these sad eyes
Beheld their violent and deathful deeds.

The ruin, sayst thou, of thy shattered fleet?

And in the anguish of my soul I rent
My royal robes.

The extensive self-flagellation descends into comedy at times. I find it difficult to identify a passage which depicts Xerxes or the Persians more sympathetically or realistically. The play thus serves as an indicator of how proud the Greeks were of their culture, as well as how relieved they were to have successfully fended off the invasion. However, the play does show the Greeks’ capacity to appreciate the might and achievements of the Persian empire, despite their barbarian status: The ghost of Darius narrates an extended history of Persian kings who successfully conquered many nations including Greek ones. Darius also becomes a vehicle to tell us what the Greeks (or Aeschylus) thought the basic reason for the Persian failure:

Yet I implored the gods that it might fall
In time’s late process: but when rashness drives
Impetuous on, the scourge of Heaven upraised
Lashes the Fury forward; hence these ills
Pour headlong on my friends.

In other words, impetuousness, rashness, and presumptuousness (Darius’ opinion about the bridging of the Hellespont) became the downfall of the Persians. Were the opposite of these perhaps characteristically Greek virtues?

  • The Suppliant Maidens: A focused study on the psychology of supplication. The chorus here is cast in the role of the 50 maidens who are fleeing from a forced marriage to their cousins. This role is unique compared to the rest of Aeshylus’ plays, as instead of being mere observers or secondary characters, they are arguably the most important characters in the play, the titular suppliants. They are explicitly described as being dressed in foreign-looking garb, making their character more alien. The maidens, accompanied by their father Danaus, come to the King of Argos and beg for his protection from their pursuers, the 50 cousins and their father Aegyptus (brother of Danaus).
    The supplication episode takes up a major part of the play, and is more central than the intense action that follows it. At first, their plight is really desperate – as the King points out, they are complete strangers, and if Aegyptus came to claim them as their next of kin, “who dares to counter this?” Their reply to this argument is that rescuing them is a matter of justice. Justice is such a key point for the maidens that they repeat this term several times in the call-and-response of the supplication scene. But what justice? The only tangible justice available then was that their countrymen had the right to take them. Rather disappointingly, the king never advances a sustained objection to this claim. Instead, he keeps appealing to practical reasons – the city counsel might not like it if he commits to the protection of strangers; he can’t guarantee anything before conferring with them, and so on. It’s only after the maidens threaten to hang themselves from the statues of gods present in the room that the King quickly relents:

    For if my deed shall match not your demand,
    Dire, beyond shot of speech, shall be the bane
    Your death’s pollution leaves unto this land.
    …But yet the wrath of Zeus, the suppliants’ lord,
    I needs must fear: most awful unto man,
    The terror of his anger.

After the supplication is successful, the rest of the play is a feel-good story for the maidens: they are initially afraid when Aegyptus’ men come, but the King keeps to his promise and kicks them out. Everything ends happily. But what is Aeschylus’ message here? It’s certainly not about the triumph of justice over evil; the above passage gives strong evidence that Aechylus doesn’t accept the maidens’ conception of justice. Instead, maybe the lesson is that being brave (and clever) enough to threaten suicide and desecration of statues of deities will be rewarded in the end. In the end, the maidens sing a prayer of thanks to Zeus; perhaps it’s ultimately about being good worshipers of Zeus.

  • The Seven Against Thebes: Interesting structure. The bulk of the opening part of the play consists of a colorful, exciting duel of verbal descriptions of warriors matched against each other, sort of like an ancient version of the WWE. There are seven warriors besieging the seven gates of Thebes. The besiegers are commanded by the seventh warrior, Polynices, brother to the commander of the defenders, Eteacles. Both are children of the cursed Oedipus. The spy comes up and describes one by one the powerful enemy warriors besieging each gate. At every occasion Eteacles counters by sending one of his own great warriors to handle them. This goes on entertainingly (but otherwise without much else to note), until the seventh warrior is reached, and Eteacles offers himself to face his brother. Then the chorus tries to convince him not to go, insisting on how wrong it is for two brothers to fight each other: “But – brother upon brother dealing death – // not time itself can expiate the sin!” They denounce him as being impious and full of blind bloodlust, but Eteacles angrily replies that the gods hold them in contempt anyway, despite their long history of offering sacrifices. He goes out anyway.
    In the end, Thebes is saved but both Eteacles and Polynices are dead, and much time is spent in the latter part of the play lamenting their death, including by their sisters Antigone and Ismene. This play, then, might be viewed as a classic tale of hubris: be full of blind lust to fight your brother for the sake of “honor” and you will be killed. But it can also be seen as a tragic conclusion to the Oedipus saga. The colorful, optimistic tone of the first part describing the six warriors only heightens the intensity of the grief later when news comes of the brothers’ death.
  • Prometheus Bound: Some scholars believe this was not genuinely authored by Aeschylus, but written decades after his death. While the play contains many non-human characters (Prometheus, Hephaestus, Kratos, Bia), they are depicted as extremely human. In contrast to Kratos and Bia, who are very eager to carry out the task given to them by Zeus, Hephaestus is reluctant to bind Prometheus to a rock (his punishment for giving humans fire). It isn’t clear exactly why he feels so bad at this – is it bizarre to think the reason as because of mercy or a sense of humaneness? Hephaestus says to Kratos that “Thy heart was ever hard and overbold,” and he also exclaims at the “execrable work” he has to do. When the chaining is finish, he states that “None can find fault with this – save him it tortures,” indicating a discomfort with torture (perhaps in general). Maybe he doesn’t feel that Prometheus deserves the torture. This would mean that Hephaestus was on the side of the humans.
    Prometheus doesn’t speak at all during his chaining scene. He only speaks when the three have left and he is on stage alone. It seems that Aeschylus does this to preserve the dramatic effect of his first line. After all, the stage directions (which I’m not sure were present in the original) mention Prometheus’ giant and imposing form (he is a Titan after all). In the rest of the play, despite being bound, he becomes the central figure, eventually emerging calm and confident in a distant future plan of his that will result in Zeus’ downfall. As he says,

    That not by strength neither by violence
    The might should be measured, but by guile.

Prometheus’ bound but confident and calculated figure is in contrast to the free yet mad Io, who comes in later. You can imagine the scene: Io, free yet mad, with horns on her head, running away from the lustful clutches of Zeus, being assured by the bound Prometheus that one of her descendants will eventually free him and become key to Zeus’ downfall. Prometheus never once seems to regret his decision to help humans by giving them fire; in fact he proudly reveals that he gave them the gift of many other arts and skills as well. He displays no fear when Hermes comes and demands him reveal his secret plan for toppling Zeus. The play then becomes a vivid portrayal of one of the Greek mythological universe’s most obstinate and brave rebels against order. As this rebellion was in the form of helping humans, the sympathetic depiction of it may point to the Prometheus legend being a form of self-justification for the Greeks: the gods don’t care about humans, but they are actually worthy of being helped out, a role fulfilled by the heroic Prometheus.
Prometheus Bound is thought to be the first part of a trilogy called the Prometheia. In the second play, reconstructed from fragments and secondary sources, Heracles, the descendant of Io that Prometheus foretells, frees him from his chains. In the third play, Prometheus eventually warns Zeus to not lie with Thetis as their son will be his downfall. This reconciles them together. I think this may seal the deal for me: despite his rebellion, ultimately Prometheus is redeemed, despite having forever altered the cosmic landscape by raising the status of humans. Perhaps we were worth it after all. Or at least the pious Greeks.

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